Field Notes: Progressive Engagement Activity

written by Norm Suchar
December 19, 2012

During last summer’s conference, we did an exercise that demonstrates to an audience how a progressive engagement process works. Progressive engagement refers to a strategy of providing a small amount of assistance to everybody who enters your homelessness system, then waiting to see if that works. If it doesn’t, you provide more assistance and wait to see if that works. If not, you apply even more, until eventually you provide your most intensive interventions to the few people who are left. We did the exercise with an audience of about 75 people. Here’s how it worked:

Step 1: Everybody in the room stands up signifying that they are entering a shelter.

Step 2: People with birth dates in January through March sit down. They represent the roughly quarter of the the homeless populations whose homeless episode is a week or less. (This is calculated using data from HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report. The figure was actually 27.8 percent.)

Step 3: People with birth dates in May through December sit down. They represent the people served through a rapid re-housing intervention. HPRP rapid re-housing programs re-house approximately 90 percent of people who enroll. The people born in April (who are standing that this point) represent people for whom rapid re-housing is more challenging, including people who are on sex offender registries, for example.

Step 4: People with November and December birthdates stand back up. They represent the ones for whom a small amount of rapid re-housing assistance, which may include short-term rental assistance, did not entirely solve their crisis, so more assistance was needed. For those individuals, a more intensive re-housing intervention, which may include one to two years of housing subsidy and intensive case management, is provided. Once this is explained, the November and December birthdays sit back down as their housing was again stabilized.

Step 5: The December birth dates stand back up. They represent the small number of people for whom the more intensive intervention will not entirely solve the problem. These are people who need long term housing and services to remain in stable housing. They are provided with permanent supportive housing and sit back down.

The precise proportions of people who fall into these categories involves some guesswork. I used data from the typologies of single adults and families with children that were published by Culhane, et al. The single adult data, for example, showed that 10 percent of single adults experience chronic homelessness and need permanent supportive housing, roughly equivalent to one month’s worth of birthdays.

I also used data from other cities such as Salt Lake City, Utah to try to identify what percentage of people who need more intensive re-housing and case management. If anything, I believe that the exercise generally overestimated the share of people who needed more intensive assistance to remain in permanent housing, but it was close.

There is obviously much more nuance involved in designing a progressive engagement process, and our National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness in Seattle will go into much more depth. However, this provides a general sense of how the process works.